Tensions over when and how to safely reopen places of worship intensified Friday, with President Donald Trump urging the nation’s governors to let religious leaders open their doors immediately.
The Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis had already said it plans to reopen Tuesday at one-third capacity, despite Gov. Tim Walz’s limits on group gatherings. Catholic leaders and Walz met Friday but made no announcement.
Trump threatened Friday to override any governors who fail to immediately open houses of worship, although the White House didn’t cite any law giving him the right to do so. Minnesota churches, synagogues, temples and mosques have been closed since March 18, following Walz’s stay-home order.
The political element brought more confusion to Minnesota’s faith communities, grappling with when and how to congregate without spreading the highly infectious coronavirus. Faith communities feel like “footballs” in the debate, said Bishop Bruce Ough of the United Methodist Church for Minnesota and the Dakotas.
“The most difficult part is there isn’t a consistent message coming from different levels of authority,” said Ough. “It can be difficult to clarify how to move forward.”
United Methodists, said Ough, will continue to take a measured approach to reopening, keeping church doors shut until public health experts recommend otherwise.
“We’ll make decisions based on our faith tradition and safety, and not get caught up in all the bait and cultural divide,” he said.
Walz decided this week to keep attendance at houses of worship capped at 10 people, while allowing restaurants to open for outdoor service. That decision was a surprise and disappointment to a huge block of religious leaders, who had expected the rules affecting them to be relaxed.
Now, many are quietly planning to reopen their houses of worship, regardless of changing signals from St. Paul or Washington.
Carl Nelson, president of Transform Minnesota, which represents the state’s evangelical churches, said many evangelical leaders are preparing to open their doors in the weeks ahead. They’re no longer holding out for state, much less federal, guidance, Nelson said.
River Valley Church megachurch, for example, announced Thursday that it would resume in-person services at its eight locations on June 1.
Nelson suggested that the faith groups in Minnesota could have influenced Trump’s announcement.
“I think the growing reaction of the Catholic and evangelical communities in Minnesota has caught some national attention in the past few days,” Nelson said.
Even within the Catholic community, opinions differ, however. While the Cathedral of St. Paul plans to open May 30 for in-person Masses, the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis does not.
Some religious leaders expressed their frustrations on Twitter and Facebook.
“I do not need the president to tell me I’m essential and need to open,” wrote Pastor Natalia Terfa of Prince of Peace Lutheran in Brooklyn Park.
“The church has been and always will be essential and no pandemic will change that,” Terfa continued. “The CHURCH is open but the BUILDING will remain closed until it is safe for everyone to gather together.”
Walz, meanwhile, met with Catholic leaders Thursday and Friday to try to resolve their differences. The governor’s spokesman, Teddy Tschann, said he is reviewing the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for houses of worship, issued after Trump’s announcement.
An agreement could come together as early as this weekend.
“The governor’s top priority continues to be the health and safety of Minnesotans,” Tschann said.